Unfortunately I can't attend the Libertarianz conference this weekend, not the least because I left NZ seven years ago and haven't looked back. Unfortunately because it promises to be the best ever, largely because the political environment for a political party that explicitly believes in less government and a smaller state has changed, dramatically.
You see the primary political debate today, as it has been throughout the last century, is the role of the state. Leaders of major parties try to evade this, because politics has become, to a large part, an exercise in show business, slogans, imagery and trivia. Rare is there in depth discussion about policy, philosophy or principles, but often is then commentary about politicians' backgrounds, their empathy, how they speak, look and whether they care.
With the rise of television, a medium primarily of entertainment, politics has become the dark science of the sound bite, of imagery.
However, it isn't just about that. The internet has opened up the opportunity for anyone to comment on politics, to write or talk about it. That has started to change political discourse, so that what people see and read is not just what the mainstream media wants them to see.
For those of us who seek to advance a consistent stand for less government, both in economics and in people's private lives, politics in NZ is at a turning point.
ACT has shrunk to a rump that is unlikely to be sustainable, and is led by John Banks, a man from the past, with a past that is simply not credible in advancing smaller government on both economic and social matters. As Peter Cresswell said, its principles are sound, but its policies and strategies have failed to come close to sustaining a party that builds a core support of those who do not want the automatic answer of a politician to any issue of the day to be "I'll pass a new law" "I'll spend some more of other people's money".
Libertarianz has never managed to pass an electoral threshold to make it more than a dedicated club of people who simply couldn't stomach compromising their principles. Both the presence of ACT, and the very low probability of electoral success, saw Libertarianz largely ignored, perpetuating that lack of success. Indeed, the two most successful outlets for libertarian ideas and policies have not been the party, but the radio shows hosted by Lindsay Perigo in the 1990s and most recently Peter Cresswell's excellent blog.
So what now?
Maybe this is what I would say if I had a chance to talk to the conference this weekend...
NZ politics is dominated by political parties that share one philosophy - statism - the belief that the state should intervene, should spend other people's money, should borrow on their behalf, should pass new laws and regulations, and that there is no principled reason why it shouldn't do so.
The mainstream media echoes this. All too often journalists ask politicians what they would "do", not "do you think the government should do something about this" or "should the government get out of the way"? The education system is dominated by statists, nurtured by leftwing unions and academics, who all sign up to a carbon copy set of beliefs. At best capitalism is seen as a necessary evil, but along with that are the post-modernist identity politics, the neo-Marxist belief that people are defined by their race and sex, and most recently even religion and body size.
The legitimate concerns over pollution have been transformed into an all-encompassing religion of environmentalism, where evidence is skewed to suit a particular monologue - that man is a disease, pollution is ever increasing, that key words like "nuclear" "genetic engineering" "fossil fuels" are all placed in a basket of horror. Where legitimate concerns are exaggerated, where evidence contrary to the monologue is ignored and the message is given that without massive state intervention in the economy and people's private lives, the environment will be destroyed and so will humanity.
Have no doubt, environmentalism is the hijacking of universal opposition to pollution and appreciation of nature, to embrace an almost misanthropic desire to control, to attack capitalism, to grow a paternalistic, regulated state that tells people what to do, what not to do and takes their money to penalise what they don't like (e.g. flying) and support what they do like (windfarms and railways).
The Greens, of course, the ones carrying the banner for this.
Never is there a problem that doesn't demand a new law, or for more money to be spent on it.
Behind the smiling faces of bright eyed bushy tailed people who claim to be speaking for what is clean, what is good, what is right and to help the poor, are people who sometimes tout xenophobia (if you doubt me, see how they talk about foreign investors, and how that parallels communist parodies of capitalists), who claim to use science and evidence, but peddle scaremongering. I remember in 1999 Jeanette Fitzsimons said it was the last Christmas
when we could trust a potato. The genetic engineering armageddon hasn't
happened, more than a couple are only wishing the global warming one does. Most recently has been scaremongering about mobile phone transmitters, purely on perception.
They believe in big government, with the small exceptions of scepticism about unlimited state surveillance powers and drugs, it is a party that thinks the state is people. It sees children as not the parents' responsibility, but everyone's. It sees people not as individuals, but as races, as sexes, as sexualities, as classes, as labels. A party of Marxists, nationalists and even misanthropes. People who believe the way to help people is to give them more of money taken from other people. People whose contradictions are endless.
I'll take one favourite of mine. CO2 emissions should be cut, they say, but foreign ships carrying freight to and from NZ, that visit several ports along the NZ coast, shouldn't be allowed to carry freight between NZ ports. Even though a ship that is travelling anyway emits hardly any more pollution carrying some freight from say Lyttelton to Auckland, it shouldn't be allowed. Why? Because the Greens sympathise with the workers on board those ships, as they aren't paid as much as NZ seafarers. So the Greens, who say they believe in the environment, and believe in jobs and say they aren't racist, would rather have more pollution to shift freight, would rather deny Filipino seafarers jobs that are, rationally, better than others they have, all to protect their well above average salary (i.e. rich by their measure) union mates.
It doesn't take long to get down to what they really believe. The Greens want more and more laws, more and more of your money and to spend more and more of it on their pet projects. Precious little of it is about freedom, and for them the state is your friend, even when it is telling you what to do, spending your money on what you don't want and frightening your children with talk of Armageddon.
Of course Labour has done a lot of that as well, for much longer. Between the Greens and Labour it's purely a matter of degree, but I recall when Helen Clark said "the state is sovereign". She didn't think there was anything that should stop government and politicians from doing as they think is best. It simply made me realise what drives Labour politicians today - the desire to tell people what to do, to change society by passing laws, by spending other people's money, but most of all the cold, humourless, finger pointing oppression of the suppression of free speech. The willingness to call anyone racist, who dares question special treatment on the basis of race, or sexist, anyone who doesn't want to introduce quotas for women on boards, has infiltrated our universities, our media and the state sector, and has been a method to deny debate and to debase argument, whilst smearing those who question in like a Red Guard from Maoist China. Phrases like "cultural safety" have spread a climate of fear in some institutions. A belief that people should never be offended, never be upset and that the state should police this has been one of the more insidious developments in the last twenty or so years. It parallels the demand for faux respect of young thugs who gleefully lash out violently at those who look at them the wrong way, as if everyone should be ultra-vigilant about their behaviour and language to not offend these empty esteem-less flowers.
Being able to be open, honest and unafraid of offending people is the hallmark of a liberal society. Labour has cultivated a culture that has eroded that. Dare criticise Islam without being labelled an Islamophobe. Dare criticise Maori organisations or Maori specific initiatives without being labelled as racist. Dare criticise calls for laws to enforce quotas for women on corporate boards, or to challenge the DPB, and be called sexist. It's not just intellectually lazy, it's aggressive, confrontational and authoritarian. Name calling is not an argument. The left do it all the time, we must resist doing so, unless the facts speak for themselves.
Labour's saving grace is to have courage of its convictions, meaning that almost every Labour government makes changes that endure. It is a point those of us who want to advance freedom should grasp. However, for the good that Labour has achieved - and most of us may look back at some of the dramatic changes pushed through in the 1980s - it has also given birth to a welfare state that has promoted and sustained intergenerational dependency, it took the just cause of redress against historic state racism and property theft to create a new taxpayer funded Maori elite, to which it is blasphemy to challenge or to hold accountable.
Labour is driven by the desire for state intervention, by the desire to change people through government, and has been responsible for so much corrosion of individual responsibility, of pride in individual success, of promotion of moral relativism and envy, that it is simply the Greens diluted.
How about National then? What a relief so many of us felt when it was 2008 and finally we said farewell to Helen Clark, as she was about to embark on a new job, in New York, ending world poverty, on a US$500,000 a year tax free salary, travelling first class and staying in five star hotels.
However, the euphoria didn't take long to end.
The National Party, like ACT, has founding principles that I can largely agree with, but in reality it is a party with one single purpose - to be in power. With the exception of three years when Ruth Richardson saved the country from bankruptcy, National's legacy has been at best to slow Labour, at worst to preside over a mammoth growth in the state that would make any socialist blush in the form of Think Big. Right now it is, once again, the party of fiscal incontinence, with a new Think Big focused on building roads and a state broadband network. National brought us the Resource Management Act, and sees reform of it largely to allow it to embark on its Think Big programme. National sees the criminal justice system as going only one way, with new laws to allow stop and search of anyone, to allow search of property without a warrant. National can sometimes throw us a tax cut, can sometimes ever so courageously try to sell a minority stake in a power company, it might even reverse the powers given to local government.
However, for all that, there is little sign National will advance real reforms to liberate planning laws by supporting private property rights, luke warm interest in opening up education to choice and liberating it from centralised command, control and rent seeking from teaching unions. National is building, once again, the corporatist state, with fervent state intervention and investment in telecommunications. It wont dare touch the Maori corporatist state or the race based electorates. Beyond all that National offers absolutely nothing on personal freedom. It wont even contemplate questioning the war on drugs, despite such radical forces as The Economist calling for an end to it. It's behaviour on law and order says all you need to know - little respect for the presumption of innocence, little respect for due process. To National, the people the police question or arrest are not "their" people, they are probably guilty anyway, so aren't really deserving of sympathy.
For a party that's meant to be about aspiration, individual achievement and respect of freedom and private property, this is contemptible.
Beyond all that, we have two race based parties, born from the belief that Maori, as a people, must have parties that mean the state specifically looks after them. Parties that embrace the corporatist Maori elite, parties that believe that it is racist to have a colourblind state, that it is racist for an election to mean one person one vote, that it isn't possible for Maori to be individuals, and to not want Maori statist politicians to represent them.
No other party offers anything that consistently supports less government, less tax, more freedom, and a presumption that the answer to policy issues is not for government to do more.
That's why we should.
ACT failed because it sold out principles for populism, for bending as the wind blew and so being a party like every other, slippery, slimy and more interested in power than principle and policies. It is as good as finished.
Libertarianz failed because it has been unable to gather momentum for ideas, for principles and sell a convincing message about less government. Quite simply not enough NZers believe in a future without the welfare state, without universal basic education and healthcare, and they aren't convinced that capitalism, free markets and most of all, individual initiative, can be an effective as well as a moral substitute for government.
There are good people in the National Party, people who do believe in less government. They may mean that, in the long term, there is some hope. However, they are in a party that exists to straddle the mainstream. They face opponents who embrace the state, who talk of "investing" other people's money and passing new laws, and of being modern and "reinventing" politics, when virtually all of them are just rehashing statism, again and again.
Those good people in National are our allies, but National will not and cannot be a sufficient platform in itself for disseminating liberalism.
So what do I mean by liberalism?
It isn't the leftwing definition, whereby it means being liberal with other people's money or being a moral relativist about crime. It doesn't mean letting murderers and rapists out of prison in a handful of years because it wasn't really "their" fault. I am using it as a synonym of libertarianism, classical liberalism or whatever you want to call it.
I mean belief in less government. The belief that government can't and shouldn't pick winners in the economy. The belief that the state sector's role in the economy exists primarily to protect law and order, enforce contracts and protect property rights. The belief that state welfare should not incentivise its usage as a choice, rather as a last resort and that those who wish to help those less fortunate should be encouraged to do so, with their own money. The belief that the state shouldn't dominate the education system, but allow it to flourish with diversity, variety and choice, so parents choose and their choices are reflected in where the money goes in the system. The belief that healthcare policy is not a choice between a paternalistic centralised state system or the broken US corporatist/state system. Finally, the belief that pensions and retirement cannot be guaranteed by a ponzi like state scheme. I do not fear foreign investment, but embrace the idea that state owned enterprises should be privatised, perhaps by handing out shares to taxpayers as well as sales to cornerstone investors.
I also think that the basis for a free, secure society is rule of law, which means reviewing all criminal laws, to decriminalise or abolish victimless crimes, including reviewing drugs policy. A point that needs to work with welfare, education, health and even ACC policies. The Libertarianz policy of legalising drugs needs to answer real concerns from parents that it will mean schools are awash with brain damaging substances - one of the answers is to look at Portugal.
It means that the rule based RMA, driven by local planners who just think they know best how your property should "fit in" to their grand ideas, is replaced by a property rights based framework, so that what you do and don't do with your property is based on how it affects the rights of others to do the same with theirs.
I also think that monetary policy's role in the recent financial crisis needs to be investigated and the fundamentals of monetary policy reviewed.
A new party needs to come up with some clear messages. It needs to defend capitalism without shame, it needs to take on every attempt to create a new law, a new regulation and a new tax, with arguments based on principle, experience and reason. It needs to harness the natural scepticism most people have of politicians and bureaucracy.
After all, would people really expect their MPs to buy their groceries, their clothes, their holidays? Why should they trust them to buy them homes, their healthcare, their pensions and their kids' education?
Why should the future of Maori be defined not by what they themselves achieve as individuals, as employees, employers, entrepreneurs, parents, as people - but by what the government gives them in money, jobs or "rights"?
The new party will not have the policies of Libertarianz, not because they are wrong, but because they are unrealistic in a Parliamentary term for a small party. What we need is a clear statement that the new party will vote consistently for steps to reduce the size of the state in its non-core functions, that it will support fiscal responsibility, so that a tax cut means a spending cut, that it will support property rights and enforcement of real crimes, but not creating new crimes just on the whim of the latest outrage. It means rejecting Think Big whether it be roads or railways, broadband or solar energy. It means supporting steps towards individuals having more choice in health and education, and weaning people off of welfare, by making it easier to start up and sustain business without the state wanting its share from day one.
It means changing the terms of the debate.
It means arguing for less state, not more, for the state to do what it is meant to do well, and to leave everything else to businesses, voluntary groups and individuals.
and to do so proudly.